Early Spring, 1838
A spa in Florence, where Varenka and Stankevich have been staying. Liubov has just arrived to join them for a short time. The Liubov narrating is actually from late summer of that year, just shortly before her death.
I had almost forgotten until I saw the shock on his face that he hadn't known I was coming. I enjoyed the idea of surprising him, giving him what little joy I could, and Varenka had encouraged the chance to give his affections one final gauging, owing to the fact that one's reactions to a surprise can be quite telling, at least according to her. It was all the better for Nicholas not to be mentioned really, my father I think forgot that he was even in Florence when I proposed the idea of making a trip to the spas. He was so intent on my staying well, or at least as well as could be expected, that I suspect he may have allowed it even had he been reminded of Nicholas' locale.
"I was going to write and tell you I was coming, but then I thought better of it… I do hope I didn't disturb you." I suddenly felt so shy again, the flush creeping over my cheeks. We were in love, I knew it, knew it to the very depths of my consciousness, but still I stood here stammering and blushing like a child!
"Oh god, Liubov! I couldn't have even wished for this, it's too perfect." The look in his eyes then -- he was so vulnerable, so amazed to see me, and grateful – made my breath catch and before I knew it, I was in his arms, my face buried against his shoulder for a moment, breathing in the soft, clean scent of him through a trace of tears.
"I had to come, Nicholas. The spas are good for me and I couldn't bear to think I wouldn't see you…"
There was so much I would have said then, but I contented myself with resting my cheek against his shoulder, holding onto him tightly. I was afraid I wouldn't see him again before I die, that was the truth, and what I had nearly said. I wouldn't speak of it, I hardly do now when death seems so much closer, but that was what had driven me to go, when I was sometimes so ill that travel seemed a ridiculous idea.
He held me for what seemed like an eternity, longer than any other affection we had dared share, and I silently dampened his shoulder with a few tears. It seems so cruel that it was our proximity to death that finally drove us into each other's arms and out of paralyzing reticence and shyness. We had no more time for blushing and awkward glances, and seeing him again drove that idea into my mind with such force I could hardly do anything but cling to him for all I could.
The first few days were a blur. I saw little of Varenka, of her own design I'm quite sure, and Nicholas and I were each other's only company. We sat for hours and talked of Hegel and Schelling and Fichte, just as we had at the Friday Philosophy Circle in Moscow that winter. I gave him news of Michael, of which there was little but his continued insistence on escaping to Berlin, and we shared what we had heard of the others; Belinsky's ailing health, Turgenev and his opera singer, the latest reading that had been touted as the answer to all of life and the world. There were long pauses while we spoke, both of us carefully avoiding discussing the future, how we felt, and what that would mean for us. I say now that we were in love, and we were, but I hardly think we knew quite what that meant at the time, at least not enough to be comfortable. I can thank George Sand for breaking the ice, as odd as that may sound.
We had walked down to the beach one afternoon, carrying books as always, and were sitting on the sand, Nicholas immersed in his own copious note taking from his volume of Kant and myself with a George Sand romance. I was a bit too keenly aware of the contrast, and closed the book after only a few moments, smiling shyly as Nicholas glanced up from his page.
"You're reading Sand again, are you?"
He raised an eyebrow at me and I knew he was teasing, making me laugh and blush at once. "Yes I am, and I wonder what Kant would say about that?"
"Well, Kant would tell you that your book is merely a result of your perception of the object in your hand, and that you cannot see the book in precisely the same way that anyone else does. Is there really a small blue book in your hand, or is that merely what you are perceiving of the object?" He laughed softly then, but seriously, and took my hand, leaning a bit closer to me. I could feel his breath on my cheek, just faintly, as he glanced down for a moment, my own eyes shielded by my lashes as I looked at him. "Do you remember that summer at Premukhino? When I saw you reading Sand in the garden while I was talking to your brother?"
"I don't think I could forget that summer if I tried, Nicholas! Between you and Belinsky visiting, Michael's endless fights with papa, and Varenka always half a step forward and half a step back from Dyakov, I don't think I've ever had so much happen in so little time in my life." I had been laughing, glancing about at the clear sky and the water, titling my face towards a soft breeze, my eyes everywhere but on him. When I finally looked at him fully again, I froze. His face had a look at times as if he were an angel who had sat down amongst the ashes and dirtied his hair and paused to smile at me. Sweet is a silly, cloying word for how he looked. It was kind, and gentle, and so scared somehow, his trepidation somehow validating my own.
"I was wrong, when I spoke to you before Michael and I left."
I had to work to keep the leap of fear in my voice from being audible. He had said so much, that had been the first time I had truly thought he could have some regard for me, but to be wrong about any of that, the thought was too horrid. "Wrong about what, Nicholas? We spoke of many things then."
"I said that love could not be moral. That it was a choice made out of desire for pleasure, out of passion, and that morality was negated by that. But now I see how wrong that was." His hand was around mine more tightly now, and the expression on my face was certainly one of surprise, I hoped not one of shock or horror or anything I did not intend, though I was so far from my mind at that moment I could hardly say. "Love is moral, it is good and right and makes men what they are. I see that now. I think perhaps Sand had it right about this all along. Love must be one of our highest ambitions or else…" I could see the faint tinge of pink on his cheekbones, the cool sweat forming on his hand even as it held my own. "Of all the philosophy I've found, everything I've believed and studied, I think I could be content with the idea that… that simply loving you was right, Liuba."
I don't remember hearing anything that was said by anyone after that until we were back at the house, I was so lost in the idea of what he had said. That night, as we sat on the veranda, with me wrapped in my shawl and leaning against him, he kissed me, and for once, neither of us let go.
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